IN the diplomatic career of any ambassador or high commissioner, one of the highlights in his or her journey abroad representing the king and country, would be the presentation of the letter of credence, a formal diplomatic letter that appoints a diplomat as ambassador or high commissioner to another sovereign state.
The letter is presented to the receiving head of state in a short, albeit formal ceremony, marking the beginning of the ambassadorship.
It is an event steeped in tradition especially in Britain, the climax of careful and detailed planning of protocol. From the steps to the credential run, it ensures that no road works are taking place along the route and the traditional feeding of the horses that pulled the semi-state Landaus can proceed smoothly.
“This is the pinnacle of my career as a diplomat, representing the Yang di-Pertuan Agong in the United Kingdom. I was the bearer of the message from His Majesty to Her Majesty the Queen of England,” said Datuk Mohamad Sadik Kethergany, the 21st Malaysian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom of the presentation ceremony at Buckingham Palace recently.
Similar sentiments were recalled by former high commissioners of Malaysia to the UK.
“I was elated and it was with pride and great honor that I started to execute a big and important job to continue this relationship with a highly respected country,” recalled Datuk Kamaruddin Abu, who served from 1992 to 1998.
Datuk Seri Zakaria Sulong whose term of office as the High Commissioner from 2010 to 2013 remembers every detail of the ceremony, which will forever etched in his memory.
On Oct 24, it was with bated breath that the crowd in front of the Malaysian High Commission in Belgrave Square, London, waited for the arrival of two semi-state Landaus — the horse-drawn carriages from the Royal Mews, carrying the Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps, Alistair Harrison.
It was drizzling but the whole atmosphere on that autumn morning gave a magical tinge to an old-aged British tradition unfolding in front of the Malaysian High Commission.
The Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps is a senior member of the Royal household, an expert on all matters of royal etiquette and is the Queen’s link with the diplomatic community in London.
Stepping out of the carriage, he walked the short distance to greet the High Commissioner and his wife, Datin Jakkiah Basran and ushered them to the carriage.
They looked resplendent in their traditional Malay costume, complete with tanjak, brooch, sampin and sash.
“I wore the same traditional costume that I wore when I received the letters of credentials from the Agong, thus the status of the occasion is respected, from the palace of the King to the palace of the Queen,” explained Sadik.
Zakaria went a step further and wore his keris, completing the traditional Malay attire ensemble.
“I asked Protocol Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office whether it was alright to wear the keris during the audience with the Queen. After all, it is a weapon. They said it was perfectly alright as it is part of the traditional Malay costume.
Zakaria and his wife, Datin Seri Hazizah Ahmad and three other officials were lucky that the event, three months after his arrival, was on a sunny morning — the top of the carriages was opened and the procession was a treat for tourists along the way to the palace.
“Our carriage passed along St James and it coincided with the Changing of the Guard. So there were a lot of tourists and
suddenly I heard, ‘Malaysia! Malaysia! Malaysia!’
“The shouts must have been from Malaysian tourists who recognised our costume,” recalled Zakaria proudly of the small but significant incident that reminded him of his role as the representative of Malaysia.
All High Commissioners Designate, as they were called before the presentation of the credentials, were briefed about the protocols before the event.
Sadik whose ceremony took place six months after his arrival in London last April, gave a copy of the credentials before waiting for his turn to have the audience with the Queen.
“This presentation of the copy of the credentials allowed me to carry out my duty as the High Commissioner. After receiving the date of the actual presentation, I was invited to undergo a rehearsal with the Marshall of the Diplomatic Corp and then I briefed the officers accompanying me on the protocol.
“As we walk, we nod our head, then take a step to the left. The first step is the step of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong while the second step is mine, as a mark of respect to the Queen. Then I presented the credentials to Her Majesty. The wordings are just so beautiful,” said Sadik.
“The language used is very interesting, as if our Agong writing a personal letter to the Queen but in a very official manner. Although I can’t recall the exact words, it conveyed a message that says, ‘I’m sending Zakaria to the Court of St James as I am confident that with his experience he will bring relations between Malaysia and the UK to a new height,’” recalled Zakaria.
Of the 20-minute audience with the British monarch, many recalled her warmth and engaging disposition, most importantly her interest and knowledge of the historical links with Malaysia.
“The Queen spoke about relations between the two countries but she didn’t dwell on anything political. She recalled her visit to Malaysia in 1998 and also the visit of her grandson to Lembah Belum,” said Zakaria.
Hamidah Ashari was Counsellor in charge of information and culture at the High Commission 21 years ago and had accompanied the then High Commissioner, Datuk Amir Jaafar. She recalled her conversation with the Queen.
“When I told her that I also dealt with the media, she said ‘That must have not been easy’. So I replied ‘no, ma’am’, and I remembered that it was a tough time, during the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana.
Although the rain was relentless as the carriages arrived back at the High Commission, Sadik and his wife did not want to miss on the tradition of feeding the four horses with carrots and apples. High commissioners are accorded four horses as a mark of respect for commonwealth countries, whereas Ambassadors are given two horses.
“It is a gesture of respect to the team that transported us,” said Sadik.
Malaysia returned the honour by feeding the horsewomen and men with homemade satay.
The ceremony ended with a vin d’ honneur — a reception hosted by the High Commissioner. In this case, non-alcoholic drinks were served for the toast.
“This English tradition has been carried out for hundreds of years, certainly a similar ceremony carried out during the Queen’s reign,” explained the Marshall of the Diplomatic Corps of the ceremony that attracts thousands of visitors to the country.